25th Trillium Award

On writing (and not writing)

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By rob mclennan

Lately, I have come to better understand how not writing is as important to the work as writing. Does that make sense? For more than 20 years, my daily writing practice has been constructed by my Protestant work ethic. My confused response to family emails asking, "What are you doing for the weekend?" is "What I do every day: I work."

Acquaintances I rarely see, ask: Are you still writing? Always, always, constantly. What kind of question is that?

I?ve presumed the only way to get anything done was to focus my attention entirely on reading and writing production. I have never been interested in doing much else, whether teaching, journalism or employment for the sake of comfort.

If I want to be producing the best work possible, it requires the best of my attention. In my early 20s, I decided to live by a Margaret Atwood quote, which was along the lines of, "If you want full-time out of it, you have to put full-time into it."

I work without a net: there is no back-up plan. I write.

Yet, married for less than a year, the relationship has shifted my perspective: Christine and I driving into the depths of Toronto for a weekend between her parents, or east, towards her mother?s cottage in Sainte-Adele, nestled in the confusion of hills and highways, deep in the Laurentians. I allow myself the new space of what I didn?t for years: I allow myself the interaction, I allow myself the garden, stretches of time on the back deck in conversation, afternoons of erranding and so many small mundane essentials. Learning finally that work no longer be the all-encompassing feature it has so long been.

I take a breath.

And through that breath, the human aspects of being, even before the work. Through breathing, I find myself more useful for those periods I am engrossed in work.

Part of our ongoing conversation centres around what we are working on, and how. The intricacies of her second poetry manuscript, her lapsed novel, our ongoing collaboration. I am still learning how it is she works. An entirely different process than my own.

Never marry a poet, I?ve heard, but I?ve rarely been one to take advice. Why not?

We have so much to say to each other, so much still to ask.

What I?ve learned so far: a prolonged patience. That we write as we write because we don?t know any other way. Once you learn how to do something, move on. The most dangerous position in any creative act is certainty: that?s the moment we stop learning. One should constantly be the beginner.

Is any of this sinking in? Lessons I?ve had to learn the hard way, since I do whatever I?m going to do, anyway. I learn to do the work through the process of doing the work; writing my way directly and entirely through comprehension.

Books arrive in the mailbox, daily. It is so easy to get caught up in work. There is always a deadline in the distance, looming. I would rather be reading. I take notes. Christine sends an email from work, happily past the nausea that comes with the first trimester. She is exhausted, still.

And what shape will my day have once the baby arrives? The monumental change to come: returning to my days of stay-at-home parenting, 20 years since I did the same for my daughter. Four or five years of an upended writing schedule, note-taking fewer projects over longer periods. Who knows what might happen? I work against deadlines.

I work, not knowing what might come next; what new opportunities await.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). A new work of fiction, The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books) will be out sometime this winter. An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

1 comment

Nice little essay, rob, especially the idea about the importance of not writing sometimes,or, as our new Nobellette, Alice Munroe, puts it, "just looking out the window" sometimes. And congratulations on your pending bubby!
cheers and thanks,
Cath Morris.

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